Warrior Wednesday Salutes

The Aircraft Carrier, its development and use through WW2 -Part One

by Walter Mow

* Note- this narrative encompasses only the actions of carrier vessels through the Second World War.

From the age of sail the ability to see over the horizon has been the quest of the world’s navies. The extension of vision allowed the projection of power fulfilling another aspect of naval ambitions. From sharp eyed sailors in the Crows Nest, through various types of balloons to the aircraft of today, the ability to see beyond the horizon has driven the development of the modern aircraft carrier.

Three nations would make use of the versatile carrier in the Second World War, the United States, Great Britain and Japan. Naval aviation would come of age in the Second World War but its roots are deep in the “War to End All Wars”.

Balloons would find uses in the First World War as aerial observation posts, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Sweden would field balloon tenders, ships designed to carry balloons and the equipment to maintain and operate the balloons. The speed and maneuverability of fixed wing aircraft would drive the demise of gas filled balloons as battle field observers. 

Seaplanes and seaplane carriers would fill the next niche in development. From invention of the first seaplane, to the first use as a weapons platform was a scant four and a half years. The Battle of Tsingtao, September 1914 the Japanese would launch 4 Maurice Farman seaplanes from the IJN carrier Wakamiya to bombard German forces in the first ever naval-launched air raids in history. On the western front, Christmas Day 1914 the British launched 12 seaplanes from HMS Empress, Engaline and Riviera to attack the German Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven, northern Germany.

The world’s first carrier launched attack occurred July 19, 1918; a re-commissioned HMS Furious would launch 7 Sopwith Camels to attack the German Zeppelin base at Tondern in southern Denmark.

The first full length flat deck was HMS Argus, a converted ocean liner, commissioned September 1918. The United States commissioned the USS Langley, a converted collier (CV-1) March 20, 1922. The first carriers to exhibit the recognizable deck configuration, a full length flight deck and the island control tower located on the starboard side of the vessel; Japan’s Hosho commissioned in 1922 and HMS Hermes commissioned February 1924. This basic design, the full length flight deck and starboard island continue to be utilized. Unlike carriers of later design, the Hermes foredeck followed the bow design rather than the blunt flight deck nose of later carriers. The Hosho would undergo major changes that would remove her island thereby creating more deck space.

In tests staged to refute the claims by General Billy Mitchell, that bombers could sink naval vessels, Mitchell’s bombers would sink a German Battleship July 21, 1921. The sinking of the Ostfriesland, a ship considered unsinkable by many, by bombers would send shock waves through the US Navy; thus prompting a robust naval system to deal with aircraft, the results would enhance the Navy’s fledgling carrier program.

The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 would place tonnage limits on battleships and battlecruisers. The Langley (CV-1) being an experimental vessel was exempt from the tonnage limits of the treaty. She would join the fleet as the US Navy’s first operational aircraft carrier November 17, 1924. Her conversion and reclassification in April 1937 as a seaplane tender (AV-3) reflected the Navy’s confidence in the growing inventory of fleet carriers.

Many nations converted existing and under construction battle ships and battlecruisers to aircraft carriers to compensate for tonnage limits. July 1, 1922 the US Congress authorized the conversion of 2 Battlecruisers to aircraft carriers to comply with the limits imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty. The Lexington Class Carriers, USS Lexington (CV-2) and the USS Saratoga (CV-3) were Lexington Class Battlecruiser conversions that became the US Navy’s first fleet aircraft carriers. They would be commissioned late fall 1927.

The 1920s and ‘30s, the “inter war years” would witness an explosion of innovation and design in aircraft and the vessels built to utilize the versatility of aviation. The naval powers of this era would build three widely held classes of aircraft carriers. First were the Fleet Carriers, the offensive weapon, the Light Aircraft Carrier, primarily used to augment the aviation arm of the Fleet Carriers; and the Escort Carrier, often built on merchant designs. Utilized as convoy protection and additional air cover for invasion forces, the Escort Carrier, although not as flashy as the fleet carriers, did more than a credible job on numerous occasions. Just as important would be the three classes of planes, Torpedo Bombers, Dive Bombers and Fighters.

Hard liners in the Navy contended that the aviation arm be more for the protection of the battle ships and cruisers. Events and stand out individuals would bring about some rather profound changes about the role of naval aviation. The burgeoning US Navy would not only lead this revolution in naval strategy but excel in the final analysis.

Some of the notable events and persons that would drive US Naval Aviation: November 16, 1927 the USS Saratoga (CV-3) was commissioned; December 14, 1927 the USS Lexington (CV-2) was commissioned; the first take off and landing on the newly commissioned Saratoga occurred January 11, 1928 by Air Officer, Commander Marc A. Mitscher. During fleet exercises conducted January 23-27, 1929 the Saratoga would stage a mock attack on the Panama Canal that theoretically would have destroyed the Mira Flores and Pedro Miguel locks with little to no opposition.

The USS Ranger (CV-4) the first US vessel to be designed and constructed as an aircraft carrier was commissioned June 4, 1934; followed by the USS Yorktown (CV-5) commissioned September 30, 1937; and the Enterprise (CV-6) commissioned May 12, 1938. Another break through would occur in June 1939 as the Carrier Saratoga (CV-3) and the tanker USS Kanawha (AO-1) successfully demonstrated the feasibility of fueling carriers at sea.

September 1, 1939 would end this Peaceful era with the sounds of “Blitzkrieg”. The United States would be absent this opening…

The British declared War on Germany September 3, 1939; The British would suffer the loss of aircraft carrier HMS Glorious sunk at sea by German Naval gunfire from the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau June 8, 1940 with a loss of over 1,200 lives. The night of November 11 and 12, 1940, HMS Illustrious launched 20 Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers against the Italian Navy Base at Taranto. This raid would have a profound effect on the war in North Africa.